The U.S. Army Research Laboratory in conjunction with Purdue University is working on a project that will allow soldiers on the ground to quickly print replacement components for damaged ground and air vehicles. Similar to research that's currently being conducted at MIT, the army plans to completely change the way their vehicles are constructed over the next ten years. Instead of using solid metal or plastic components to build their vehicles they plan to switch to a series of 3D printable structures that interlock and can be replaced at a moment's notice.

Called Topological Interlocking Structures (TIS), the honeycomb like building blocks are completely adaptive and configurable to the harsh conditions in the field. They are resistant to random and harmonic vibrations, thermal loads, repetitive shocks, crashes and acoustic attenuation. They also tend to crack and break less often than current materials. Best of all, when a section of the honeycomb gets damaged, soldiers can simply print a replacement part and repair it right there in the field. "Sometime in the near future, soldiers would be able to fabricate and repair these segmented structures very easily in the front lines or Forward Operating Bases, so instead of moving damaged ground or air vehicles to a main base camp for repair, an in-field repair approach would essentially mean vehicles would be fixed and accessible to warfighters much faster at lower costs," said Ed Habtour, a research engineer with ARL's Vehicle Technology Directorate at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

The U. S. Army Aviation and Missile Research Development and Engineering Center is already in the middle of incorporating this research into AMRDEC and Tank Automotive development and they hope that the end result will be a streamlined repair process that allows them to save both money and time. "The benefit for the soldier is an after-effect. The TIS would provide an excellent energy absorption and dissipation mechanism for future vehicles using additive manufacturing," Habtour said. "Subsequently, the soldier can print these structures in the field using additive manufacturing by simply downloading the model generated by the designer/vendor."

The U.S. Army has already deployed rapid prototyping pods to the front lines in Afghanistan. When soldiers have an immediate need for a part the labs go to work and turn it around within a week. The military's adoption of the new TIS technology could mean that in the future, those rapid prototyping labs will be putting out far more than spare parts; they may be responsible for printing out entire sections of tanks and aircraft one honeycomb at a time.